Cuba: know before you go

Capitolio Havana Cuba

To avoid coming back from your trip disappointed, it’s good to know what to expect before you jump on that plane all excited. Now I believe you should always do some reseach about a country before heading off but for a country like Cuba, this is kind of a deal breaker.

The situation is as followed: you arrive in a country for the first time, where things go almost opposite from what you’re used to. Because you have no clue of how things work, it makes you an easy target. Don’t get too upset when you get ripped off but take it as a lesson learned. Alright, if we’re talking about a fair amount of money it can suck. You got fooled, we get it. But did anyone force you into doing anything? Life is but a game. Play it wisely or go home crying. The thing with Cuba is though that you will always be 2 steps behind. However, your state of mind can determine the game.

Picture of El Floridita Havana Cuba

Prepare for your trip
Read about what it’s like to travel Cuba. I’m not talking about which bar Hemingway had his favourite drink and stuff but useful tips about what to expect. There are a lot of blogs out there if you just simply google. It may save you from some unpleasant surprises.
If you don’t know any Spanish, now is the time to do something about that! You don’t need an expensive course. Download the Duolingo app, worked fine for me. The Latin Spanish phrasebook from Lonely Planet is also very helpful for travel related phrases. Not many people – besides official tourguides – speak well enough English but everybody wants to talk to you. You won’t speak fluent Spanish overnight but those few words you learned will bring you a long way.
Download for an offline map of Cuba. A detailed map is hard to find and you can forget about the internet. Except when you deliberately got lost, it can be quite annoying not knowing where you are or where to go. Besides, is your best friend negotiating with taxi drivers about the price. Saved me a few bucks anyway.
Talking about money: take enough cash with you! Yes, the amount you think you need for the entire trip – plus a bit extra. Everything besides USD will do. Your debit card will not work. At least it still didn’t in July 2017. Your credit card will – unless American of course – only to collect money from the ATM. However, it will charge you extra. Since exchange offices might not be open at times, I consider taking both cash and credit card. I also consider taking everything you think you might need during your trip. I sat next to this girl on the plane who forget her birth control pills and didn’t pack tampons. It’s not that these things don’t excist in Cuba, it’s just not that easy to come by. Save yourself the trouble.

Colectivo Cuban classic taxi

Know what things will cost – approximately that is
You probably already knew that on Cuba you ca pay with either CUP (pesos) of CUC. 24 CUP = 1 CUC = 0.90 euro. You will most likely only use CUC, except occasionally when you buy some fruit at street stalls. Although it’s not always entirely clear if prices are in pesos or CUC. It makes things a bit complicated sometimes and you will probably be charged more. It’s basicly a habit to try to get tourists to pay a little extra. But doesn’t this happen like almost everywhere? Therefore, it is wise to know beforehand what things will approximately cost you and always ask for the price before ordering something. I was asked 3 CUC – yes, I understood the man correctly – for a frozen lemonade at some stall along side a tourist attraction. Of course this happens more often in tourists areas than it does in the more quiet neighborhoods. But even then 3 CUC is way overrated. Thinking you could get a meal with a drink for the same price. Suddenly you’re not that thirsty anymore. So politely – it’s not really – give back your limonade frappe and walk away. Chances are your drink will get a bit cheaper. Or the man starts calling you names, that could also be the case but so be it. According to the menu, a fancy bar – but what is fancy? – will charge you 1 CUC for the same thing but you can also get it for a few cents. That’s just how things work. Don’t get too frustrated. Obviously, you buy wifi cards at an official ETECSA point – or don’t use internet at all. You’ll need your Passport to do so. They cost 1,50 CUC each and give you an hour internet access. I met some travelers along the way who had bought them for 3 to 8 CUC. Why you would pay 8 CUC for an hour of bad internet connection is beyond me. But they did probably make a Cuban or 2 very happy. That has to count for something. Although there are some ways to minimize the costs, Cuba is not a cheap country to travel through. Take a daily amount of 50 to 100 euros into account – this includes accommodation, transport, meals and activities. Depending on what kind of traveler you are, your level of negotiating skills, whether or not you speak Spanish and how well you know to work your charm. This can all have influence on your budget. Accept what you can’t change and you’ll be a happy traveler!

etecsa office Vinales Cuba

Don’t fall for them tricks
Now if you’ve read about traveling through Cuba you’ll recognize many of them from miles away. Don’t get angry when you do but have fun with it. You can’t really blame one for trying right? No, of course there is no big salsa festival going on when you happen to be in Cuba. Alright, you might be lucky but chances are small. In Cuba, there is something going on every night but you do not need tickets nor do you need to go with that super friendly Cuban, who you spontaneously ran into 2 seconds ago, to benifit from that one ‘special offer’. Total baloney! Often you will end up in some random bar, but there was no big salsa festival nor did you benifit from a special offer. There happened to be an extra surcharge someone forgot to tell you about. So when you get those invitations just thank them kindly and tell them you’ve got other plans. You will have a nice conversation for a few minutes with a friendly Cuban because they are friendly. There will be no one – at least, that’s my experience – forcing you into doing something you did not want to do. Now I’m not saying you should never listen to a friendly Cuban who invites you to a bar or restaurant. I accepted an invitation once or twice because it isn’t necessarily a bad thing when someone gets commission of your order. As long as they don’t exploit you. I paid 2 to 3 CUC for a cocktail and ended up having a great night. Win-win. Do however ask what a drink will cost you before taking them up on their offer. A bill of 20 CUC for a few drinks can be such a nasty experience – unless you had a few too many yourself that is. Unfortunately, this does happen. Prices were just simply high or that super friendly Cuban had ordered a drink aswell. Even when he invited himself best believe you’ll be paying for the drink and maybe a little extra for his company. When traveling alone as a female you will attrack a lot of friendly Cubans and definitely not all of them are out to fool you – not completely at least, maybe just a little. In my previous blog I wrote that Cubans are open minded and sincere people full of life. Remember? It’s true, just always keep your guard on. In a restaurant in Viñales I thought someone asked me if the seat at my table was taken so he could take it away but apperantly I had given him permission to join me?! Those few Spanish words I had learned didn’t really help me there. Before I knew it he was sitting at my table ordering food. I had a funny feeling. All those others who sat with me, talked with me, danced with me, flirted with me never ordered anything themselfs. I’m still not sure what his intentions were but the waitress’ reaction got me to more suspicious. Non-verbal communication is universal. ‘No pagar por él’ worked fine and did not add any additional costs to my bill. At touristy sights you might hook up someone who kindly provides you from all sorts of information you didn’t really ask for. But hey: it’s nice to know a bit more about a place you visit right? Just know that the info can come with a price tag.

entree Callejon de Hamel Havana centro

You see: Cuba is a great country but it can make you feel like you’re up against Cersei at some points. Although Cuba’s personality is nothing like the Queen of Westeros, she can play dirty – if you let her. You can choose to drink more rum and whine about it or you can find some dragons and play the game. You might not win but you don’t have to go home like a sore loser either.

Looking forward to our rematch –  X –

3 Replies to “Cuba: know before you go”

  1. Weer heel leuk verteld Simone. Alleen moet ik me elke keer weer door die Engelse tekstjes heen werken, maar dat komt doordat ik zelfs de meest nodige taal niet goed ken. Komt door de tijd waarin ik geboren ben én mijn eigen luiheid.
    Maar verder is het alweer heel onderhoudend beschreven waardoor je je beslist niet verveelt.
    Toppie Simone.
    Ik zou het zelf willen meemaken als ik dit allemaal zo lees.

    1. Hahah dankjewel! Wat let je? Nog fief zat joh 😉

  2. I’ll try. Of is het trie??? Lol.

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